"We've got snakes!"

2006-09-13 08:21
"It's a title. It's a concept. It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It's perfect. Perfect. It's the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles." - Josh Friedman

For those who haven't heard the news, a campy horror / action film named Snakes On A Plane (or SoaP to its many fans) is going to win the MTV Movie Awards' top prize for 2007. Well, at least according to star Samuel L. Jackson it is.

Jackson presented this year's MTV Best Movie award with the words: "I am guaranteeing that Snakes on a Plane will win Best Movie next year. Does not matter what else is coming out. The New James Bond... no snakes in that! Ocean's 13... where my snakes at? Shrek the Third... green, but not a snake. No movie shall triumph over Snakes on a Plane."

But Jackson's light-hearted rant is only one part of the hilarious running-joke-cum-marketing-campaign behind the film. Since the script was optioned by Paramount Pictures in 2000, the Internet buzz has built steadily, but it was only when Jackson joined the cast that it turned into a full blown phenomenon. In the absence of a trailer or poster art, fans began creating their own a full year before the film was due for release. The craze grew to include t-shirts, songs and even a short film parody competition. One almost religiously enthusiastic fan created a SoaP blog as part of a quest to get his hands on an invite to the movie's premiere. The blog ended up attracting a million visitors, and he got his wish.

Once New Line Cinema (who bought the script after Paramount shelved it) had cottoned on to the size of the Internet craze, they began to use it to their advantage, mostly by leaving things well alone. They did produce a few carefully pitched pieces, including one truly inspired piece of interactive marketing that let you send a personalised message in Samuel L Jackson's voice to a cellphone or e-mail address. The studio also actively tried to incorporate as many of the fans ideas into the final production as possible.

In fact SoaP will go down in history as the first film to be partially re-shot according to input from fans BEFORE they had even seen it. Though principal photography wrapped in September 2005, New Line commissioned five days of additional shooting in early March 2006. The new footage was tailored to include dialogue used in fan parodies including the line: "Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" It was also intended to raise the age restriction on the film, which had been toned down for a PG-13 audience.

These changes came on the back of an aborted attempt to change the film's title to Pacific Air Flight 121. When the movie's fans and its star heard about the plans, they reacted with genial outrage. At the time Samuel L. Jackson told an interviewer, "We're totally changing that back. That's the only reason I took the job: I read the title." In another interview he quipped, "What are you doing here? It's not Gone with the Wind. It's not On the Waterfront. It's Snakes on a Plane!" The title was duly changed back, much to the delight of everyone involved.

As for the plot of the film, it is simplicity itself: Jackson is an FBI agent who is escorting a witness on a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles when a crime lord engineers the release of hundreds of deadly snakes on the airplane in order to eliminate the witness before he can testify against him. Now everyone on board must band together to survive the deadly onslaught etc. etc.

Most mainstream critics have been less than kind to the film (which opened in America on Thursday the 17th of August), calling it bland, forgettable and ordinary, but the viewing public don't seem to care. They have already flocked to the film in their thousands, racking up an estimated $1.4 million on the first day alone. Theatre owners are said to be amazed by the rowdiness of audience participation at most of the shows, with people whooping, heckling and even bringing giant inflatable snakes into the screenings.

So why all the fuss about a silly B-grade film? The most convincing argument is that audiences are sick of irony and spin, and the film's dumb-but-honest premise comes as a breath of fresh air. Whatever the reason, you can bet I'll be jumping on board the very first chance I get. After all, how many times do you get to see Samuel L Jackson have this much fun in a movie?

- Alistair Fairweather